Slow down to speed up. Go slower to get faster.
These are popular sayings in the world of more structured training for runners that you may have heard before. They’re catchy, but they don’t exactly tell the whole story. If you want to become a faster runner, there’s a time and a place for LOTS of different paces. As central PA trail runner extraordinaire and hill segment maven Matt Lipsey recently told me on a slow-paced trail run, “It’s important to work all the gears.”
If you’re a Strava user and would like to see this training philosophy in action, I’d recommend following a professional runner named Drew Hunter. The guy has a 5K best of 13.29 (you read that right) and routinely logs recovery runsnear 8 minute mile pace (you also read that right). Don’t get me wrong, the guy crushes some insanely fast track workouts and road intervals, but he’s also not afraid to CHILL OUT on those runs that are meant for recovery. It’s a perfect example of working all the gears, but something that the average 9-5 runner often lacks the patience for, present company included.
Need help slowing down on some of those runs? I’d recommend hitting the trails. I’m not talking about rail trails. I mean trail trails. They offer a great venue for slowing down, primarily for reasons: There’s lots of awesome stuff to look at that you might miss if you’re moving too fast, there are most likely hills that you will have no choice but to run very slow (or walk), and if you’re moving too fast there’s a very good chance you’ll end up horizontal.
When it’s time to go slow, go SLOW. Enjoy it, because every other part of life is going to start speeding up again before we know it.
But just HOW SLOW is slow enough? And how often should you be doing these slower runs?
There’s a general rule you may have come across called the “80/20” rule, meaning that 80 percent of your running should be EASY, while the other 20 is meant for faster training. It’s a good starting point, but definitely not strict rule. There are variables that will change these numbers, such as the phase of a training cycle you are in (base building is mostly all easy running) and if you substitute recovery running days with cross training activities such as biking. However, the 80/20 rule is a good reminder that MOST of the running you do should be easy.
But what about dialing in that easy pace? How do you know what your easy pace is?
- Check your breathing pattern. An easy run should have you inhaling 3-4 steps (or more), then exhaling 3-4 steps. If you find yourself breathing more quickly than that (such as on hills), your run pace has gotten out of the easy range.
- Find a friend to run with and talk. Many people refer to easy pace as “conversation” pace. If you can hold a full conversation while running, you’re running easy.
- Use a pace calculator (like this one) or chart (like the one found in Daniels’ Running Formula, recommended below. Through years of scientific study, coaches like Jack Daniels have determined various runpaces for individuals based off of single race efforts. While not always perfect, they are a great starting point.
- Use heart rate, but be very careful doing so. Easy pace running should have your heart rate BELOW 75-80% of max. However, there are so many variables that impact this that I don’t personally recommend it unless you have access to right right equipment. The first problem with using heart rate (HR) to determine pacing is that it’s based on a percentage of your MAXIMUM HR. So in order for you to use HR correctly, you must know your max HR. It’s been proven that the old “220 minus your age” formula is nowhere near consistently accurate, so the only other way to get a true read on your max HR is to get tested by a professional or attempt to run a workout that maxes out your HR. The former is hard to find, and the latter is a lot harder than it sounds to accomplish.
Another problem with using HR is equipment issues. If you’re basing your training off of HR, you want the numbers you’re seeing to be accurate. And if you want accurate HR on a consistent basis, be prepared to invest in a chest strap. Wrist-based HR has come a long way, but it’s far from consistently accurate.
The last issue I’d like to mention concerning the difficulty of using HR to dial in pacing is that it is impacted by environmental conditions. Your HR is naturally lower in the morning than the afternoon. Your general stress level can alter your HR. The temperature and humidity levels have an impact as well. That means that all of these variables need to be considered when using HR to train.
Using heart rate to train appropriately isn’t impossible. There are many runners that have found great success using the HR method. If you’d like to go that route, please do your homework and invest in the right equipment!
If you want to get the most enjoyment out of your running, it’s important to keep your pacing right to avoid becoming burnt out, frustrated, or even injured. If you’d like to get even more specific about your own personal pacing, let me know. I’d be happy to help you dial it in!